Is Romney a Realist or an Idealist?

The GOP nominee has yet to clarify his foreign policy instincts

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Illustration: Oliver Munday for TIME; Romney: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Where I come from," Paul Ryan told a New Hampshire town-hall meeting audience the week before the Republican National Convention, "overseas ... means Lake Superior." It was a joke, and a self-deprecating one at that, a quality always to be welcomed in politicians. Ryan was talking about a substantial issue: the fact that Canada had lowered its corporate tax rate to 15%. But still, there were unfortunate echoes of Sarah Palin's citation of Alaska's proximity to Russia as a foreign policy credential. And it brought attention to a curious fact about the 2012 Republican ticket: Ryan and Mitt Romney have the least foreign-policy and national-security experience of any ticket, for either party, in the 10 presidential campaigns I've covered. (As Michael Cohen pointed out in Foreign Policy, they have the least overseas experience of any ticket since Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren in 1948.)

The New Hampshire event was a joint appearance by the two Republican candidates, and it was striking: apart from a passing reference by Romney to the need for American military strength, neither candidate mentioned foreign policy in his stump speech. It was also notable that on the day the Todd Akin "legitimate rape" controversy broke, neither candidate mentioned any of the social issues that so dominated the Republican primaries--but that's another story. Or maybe it isn't: when Romney finally was asked about foreign policy during the question-and-answer period, he struck a more moderate tone than he did during the primaries. His remarks about Afghanistan, Israel and Iran were reassuringly unexceptional; his criticism of the President was mild. His slouch toward the center proceeds apace.

Ryan tended to be more critical of Obama--and more naive. He criticized the President for removing troops in the midst of the Afghan fighting season, which sounds serious but actually reflects a strategic decision not to use force-intensive counterinsurgency tactics in the eastern sector of the country. He also was more pointed than Romney, on this day at least, in accusing Obama of pulling out of Afghanistan for domestic political reasons. By contrast, Romney sounded very much like the man he was running against: the goal, he said, was to transfer power from our military to the Afghans as quickly as possible and to be sure that terrorists don't retake control of the country and use it as a launching pad for attacks against the U.S.

On Israel, Romney said it was best to keep disagreements with friends private--a reference to Obama's public dispute with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli settlement expansion, an episode the President has told me he handled badly during his first year in office. On Iran, Romney said he was happy that "crippling sanctions" were finally being imposed, but he steered clear of the latest, bellicose neoconservative idea--that Congress should pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iran. Indeed, I imagine that the neocon subset of the Republican Party will be upset by the mildness of Romney's New Hampshire remarks and by the fact that Romney has selected the estimable foreign policy realist Robert Zoellick to lead his transition team's search for national security talent.

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